Saturday, January 11, 2014

Benefits of a Student-Centered Classroom

Midterms are next week. Over the Christmas break I needed to finalize my exams so I could handout study guides when we returned to school. I was agonizing over it.

Struggling with having to give an English midterm exam to my Ss. Just want to keep working on the things they need to learn, not test them!
12/30/13, 10:42 AM

@nataleestotz Does it HAVE to be a test? Can it be some other assessment of ability?
12/30/13, 11:10 AM

@nataleestotz @Beth139 make the exam a lit analysis paper on passages they've never seen/a theme related to what you're doing.
12/30/13, 7:03 PM

I really didn't want to give an exam for the sake of giving an exam. I wanted it to be meaningful. I decide to have them write a major literary analysis. My seniors would write about the topic of Pilgrimage or Journey as a motif in life and literature. The freshmen and sophomores would write about the Human Experience in literature, and the juniors would have complete choice of their topic. 

And then there is my senior government class. I could have used their chapter tests and create an exam, but what really would that show me? So I asked them to think about how they could best demonstrate to me what they understand from this semester. It's a small class, four students. We discusses ideas and they each settled on a topic and a product. One is writing a paper about privacy and the gaming industry specifically related to a recent incident with an on-line game. One is doing a creative writing piece using the different forms of government. One is writing an essay on the different forms of government. The fourth is creating a series of info graphs that display key words and concepts for each chapter. 

On their way out of class on Thursday, after a very productive block period of work, one of them said to me, "I think is neat how what each person chose reflects their individuality!"

That right there is one of the things I love about a student-centered classroom!

In my English classes, we've spent this week developing thesis statements, drafting, and conferencing. When I assigned the essay, I asked the students to look at the works we read in class (both whole class study and pleasure read alouds) and at what they have read on their own. I have students comparing Arthur Miller's The Crucible with Robison Wells's Variant and Feedback, and students examining how suicide is delt with in Jay Asher's 13 Reason Why. B is writing about the power of words to create and destroy, it's a topic he's been thinking about a lot lately and he recently finished the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness. S is writing about revenge after having read Jonathan Maberry's Rot & Ruin series. N is writing about the masks we wear- something he noticed in a memoir he read. A is writing about love stories as she compares Romeo & Juliet with John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. C is looking at how authors in his favorite fantasy books deal with the depravity of man. 

The conversations that are happening as my students work in class on these essays are more valuable in assessing their knowledge then any 50 questions exam I could ever write. As I talked with several of the boys who regularly struggle with English class, helping them to identify a topic and develop a thesis, our conversation revealed the things they had noticed in their reading. They didn't think it was what I was looking for for the essay. When I pressed them to tell me their ideas, I was delighted with their thinking: turns out it was exactly the kind of idea I was looking for and was pretty insightful!

On the second day we were working, one of the boys said, "I'm bad at writing." Another immediately chimed in that he, too, was bad a writing. I responded right away, "No, you're not! I've read your writing. None of you are bad writers. You just don't like to write. There's a difference. Not one of you is a bad writer." The boy who original spoke thought for a moment, then replied, "You're right!"

Later, the same two boys were sitting just looking a their thesis generators- organizers they had filled out after conferencing with me and contained excellent ideas. 

"I don't know what to write." 

I knew they could explain their ideas, but were hung up on the process of getting thought to paper.  "Just think about how you explained it to me. That's where you start. Pretend you're talking to someone. If you're at home, record it. Go into your room and talk to your cat, but record it."

"There's an app that does speech to text!" And they proceed to explain how the app words, even show it to me on an iPad, and laugh about the funny way the app gets things wrong.

"Exactly! Then you go back and edit to fix the words it got wrong. That's much easier than struggling to get your ideas written or typed out." 

The conversation continued as they realized they could use their technology to help them write their papers in a way they never imagined. I swear, angels were singing in that moment.  When I relayed this story to my husband this morning, he quipped, "They say 'find your voice', well this is 'use your voice'!" 

I think these boys are finding their voice and learning to use their voice! These are revelations and learning moments that they would not have had if I had given them a study guide of literary terms and vocabulary words. 

I'm not dreading midterms and end of quarter. It will be a pleasure to read the English papers and see the final products from my government class. I love the ideas these kids are generating and developing. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Little Late to the Party

We were suppose to go back to school yesterday. Winter storm Hercules had other plans, and our Christmas vacation was extended by two days. I'm not complaining. While I do miss my students and I'm eager to hear about their vacations, the things they did and the books they read, I have used my extra time well. I spent time reading and researching.

I've been researching some trends in education and in my research on Genius Hour (more to come on that later), I reconnected with a guy I ran cross-country with my freshman year at PCB (now Cairn University). We weren't super close because I was a dorky freshman and he was a cool upperclassman, but he was (and is) a really nice guy and was part of the family that helped me make a smooth transition into college. Turns out he's been doing Genius Hour for a couple of years. Its been fun to reconnect and swap ideas and book titles.

I also spent time reading TEACH LIKE A PIRATE by Dave Burgess. When the book came out, there was a lot of buzz on Twitter and a large number of people all read it and had chats about it. I lurked in some of those chats (how can your curiosity not be piqued by a hashtag like #tlap?) but didn't participate. I hadn't read the book, and the impression that I got was it was something for elementary and involved dressing up to teach your lessons. So I kind of passed it off. That's just not my thing, and I teach high school.

Then came time for the executive board of the Maine Reading Association to plan it's spring conference.  One of the names that was floated was Dave Burgess. "Who?" I asked.

"Teach Like a Pirate".


My fellow board members had all read they book (They are elementary teachers. I still was so clueless!) and gushed about how amazing it was. From a marketing stand point, it made perfect sense to me. I hadn't read the book, didn't know the guy from a hole in the wall, but I knew from Twitter that he & his book would be a big draw.

Now I needed to read the book, preferable before March 8. After all, I was helping to plan and promote the event and would certainly be attending, even if just to support MRA. So here we are, back at the first of two snow days at the end of Christmas vacation. I started reading and playing around with visual note taking. This morning I finished reading Part 1 and spent about 30 minutes talking with my husband about the ideas that I took from just this first part of the book.

I can honestly say, I drank the Kool-aide. I came away from the reading encouraged, inspired, and challenged. What I thought was a gimmick that didn't apply to me, is actually very appropriate to my situation. I've been working hard to try to find the best practices that are the best fit for our school and am coming to the realization that we can't keep trying to fit into the traditional model of school. It just isn't producing the outcomes we are looking for. My co-worker and I have been lamenting that our high school students are disengaged from the learning process and unenthusiastic about school. You see, PIRATE is an mnemonic. The cornerstones are Passion (both professional and personal) and Enthusiasm. These are two things that we want in our students. These are two things that our teachers need to have. Students are not going to be passionate or enthusiastic about learning if their teachers are not exhibiting those qualities.

This is challenging me to rethink how I'm teaching. I'm not going to be able to change everything instantly. As Dave Burgess points out, "creativity results from properly directed attention, laser-like focus, relentless effort, and hard work." It takes time, and I admittedly have a lot on my plate, but it is important, and so I will start targeting bits of my lessons and figure out how to approach them in a way that will better engage my students.

I've already been thinking about that handful of boys that I know I'm losing. They're great kids, and are definitely capable, but they are struggling with the complex texts and the writing assignments I'm asking them to do. I don't want to lose them. I want them to know that while English might not be their cup of tea they can still succeed. I want them to learn to see the connections that I see between life and the books we're reading.

As I work on researching best practices and what works, and prepare my proposal for the school committee, I'm going to keep all this is mind. We want our kids to be engaged, enthusiastic, and passionate learners. That's not going to happen with a special program or schedule, they have to see it in their teachers before it can be fostered in them.

This is one of those times that I wish I had endless funds so that I could purchase this book for all my colleagues and pay for them to attend the workshop with Dave in March. I maybe a little late to the party, but I'm glad I made it.

If you driving distance of Auburn, Maine, and would like to attend the workshop, click here for a link to the flyer for the March 8 event.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Getting to Know You, by 11s

Last week I was challenged, given homework, tagged, nominated...not sure what to call Kate Baker to take part in a 4-part blog post intended to help bloggers connect and share. Kate is an invaluable member of my PLN on Twitter. I've enjoyed reading the different blog posts from people who have been participating in this.
Here is how it works:
1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
4. List 11 bloggers after you write this.
5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don't nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

Here we go:

Part 1: 11 Random Facts About Me
1. My only foray into working retail lasted two weeks. I got a job at Staples the semester after I finished student teaching. As much as I love Staples, I hated working retail and gave my week's notice after my first week!
2. I grew up spending my summers on a lake in north-central Maine.
3. I am the third generation of teachers in my family- on both sides!
4. I love the color orange.
5. When they first met me, some of my students thought I was going to turn out to be a hippy because I wore a tie-dye sweatshirt and had a water bottle covered with peace signs. They were relieved to discover that I was not a hippy.
6. I have always wanted to become a published writer.
7. It is a toss up for me between the mountains and the water. I love both and I'm happy when I'm hiking, skiing, kayaking, canoeing, or sitting and looking at the water (or the mountains).
8. My husband and I met in September, started dating in January, were engaged in April, and married in June (six years ago). When it's right, you know it!
9. Aaron Sorkin is one of my all time favorite screen writers. I still haven't seen Newsroom, and that is bugging me. West Wing remains my ultimate favorite TV show.
10. I hate to cook.
11. Even though I am an English teacher and an avid reader, I am a horrible speller. One word I can NEVER remember how to spell correctly is "guarantee". I'm always at a loss.

Part 2: 11 Questions from Kate
1. What is your favorite type of cookie?
My favorite store-bought is Oreo, but I love homemade cookies. My mom baked all the time when I was growing up. Chocolate chip can't be beat!

2. As a cook, what is your signature dish?
Even though I hate to cook and I am blessed by a husband who is willing to do most of the cooking, I try to do my share since he works 10hr days. I've learned to make a pretty good meatloaf which he loves. When I told him I was putting the meatloaf as my signature dish, he said, no, it was my coconut beef curry. So there you have it!

3. What was your best Christmas/Birthday/Holiday gift ever (either given to you or you gave to someone else)?  4. Why was that the best gift ever?
I'm combining these because it's easier to explain that way. What immediately comes to mind is my birthday in August 2011. We had just moved to Maine a few weeks before so that I could start a new job as Head of the High School and Humanities Teacher at Windham Christian Academy. Growing up, I had always spent my birthday at our family's cottage on Sebec Lake and I wanted to do that again now that we were back in Maine. We got up to the cottage and I called my folks to let them know we were there and to ask my Dad if they would come out to see us on the day of my birthday. His answer was, "We'll see." His health had gotten pretty bad with the COPD and they were living day by day, taking the good days when they could get them. Mid morning on my birthday my parents drove to the cottage. We had a delightful visit. Dad spent the afternoon on the screened porch, did some reminiscing, and visited with family friends who stopped by. That was the last trip Dad ever took to the Lake, the place where he spent his summers growing up and where he raised his own kids. That was the last time he ever drove. About a week later he went to the hospital. We discovered that his body was full of cancer. He died a month later, never leaving the hospital. The fact that Dad's last trip to the Lake was for my birthday will always be a special memory for me.

5. What is your favorite tech tool?
I think I have to say Google Drive. It has changed my paper management as an English teacher. It makes organization and collaboration so much easier!

6. Oxford comma, necessary or superfluous?
Necessary because it just makes sense!

7. What is your favorite book?
This is such a hard question because I have read so many amazing books and I keep discovering more. I don't have one favorite book, I have lots of books that I love, that stay with me, that are simply beautiful for different reasons. A book that struck me when I first read it was O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. I remember just being in awe of Cather's description of the plains and admiring the main character.

8. If you could have 3 wishes, what would they be?
1) Christian schools would have the funding they need to pay teachers appropriate salaries. 2) My husband could start his own woodworking business. 3) We could live on the coast (of Maine).

9. If you were to name one piece of clothing that describes you, what would you say?
A broken in, cotton, hoodie sweatshirt.

10. Would you rather visit the world 100 years into the past or 100 years into the future?
I think the past. The early 1900s was a fascinating time, and I love and appreciate the older way of life.

11. What's the kindest act you have ever seen done (either to/by you or another)?
This is a tough one. I do see acts of kindness big and small all the time and I try to do what I can. It's hard to rate these acts with superlatives. Thinking about it, what comes to mind is the most recent acts of kindness I've seen. There is a family in my school that is constantly experiencing the kindness of others. The dad was diagnosed with ALS 6 years ago, in fact, when they got the diagnosis, he was only given 4-5 years to live. His wife and son (my student) are his primary care-givers. They are full of joy in the face of their trial and are constantly sharing stories of people helping them, from clearing snow to bringing meals, to a patient sales clerk in a shoe store.

Part 3: Nominate other Bloggers.

1. Paul Hankins
2. Gigi McAllister
3. Kimberly Moran
4. Maria Selke
5. Justin Stygles
6. Jenn Felt
7. Cindy Minnich
8. Sarah Mulhern Gross
9. Cynthia Lord
10. Ken C
11. Melissa Guerrette

Part 4: 11 Questions for those I've nominated.
1. What was your first car?
2. What would be your ideal vacation?
3. What is an idea that you had that you were very proud of? Why? How did it work out?
4. What is a book that has stuck with you?
5. Are you a Mac or a PC person and why?
6. If you had 3 hours to do with as you pleased, how would you spend them?
7. What is the craziest idea you ever had?
8. Did you ever follow through with that idea?
9. What and how many pets do you have?
10. Which teacher had the biggest impact on your life?
11. Which student has had the biggest impact on your life thus far?